Vienna Opera on the Cheap: A User’s Guide
Any visit to Vienna is incomplete without seeing at least some opera. Even if you don’t like it, it’s something everyone should experience. Tickets for performances at the Staatsoper (State Opera) can run well up into the hundreds of Euros, depending on the opera and performers. The cheapest seats can be purchased for around 10 Euro, but these will all come with at least a partially (if not entirely) obstructed view. Thankfully, there is a fine tradition in all of the premier opera houses in the world to save hundreds of standing room tickets to be sold 80-90 minutes before each performance. These tickets run from 3-4 Euro, making it possible for even the thriftiest of travelers to indulge in a slice of upper-crust entertainment.
During my visit, I saw a dual performance of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, by Pierto Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo, respectively. My Vienna opera experience, particularly Pagliacci, turned out to be the highlight of my entire visit; however, there are a few things that I wish I knew about purchasing standing room tickets beforehand. Here, I’ll provide a few quick pointers on how to go about buying the cheap seats to some of the best opera performances on the planet.
For each performance, there are over 600 standing room tickets available, so if you just want to check things out and say you’ve been to a performance, no reason to spend half the day waiting in line. But if you want to optimize your chances at getting a good spot for seeing an entire performance, you’ll need to pay attention to timing and be willing to devote several hours to the process. In general, be prepared to wait, but also be prepared to boogie once you give your ticket to the ticket collector.
Tickets go on sale about 80-90 minutes before each performance. As most performances start at 7:30, this means standing room seats begin to go on sale at around 6:00. However, the line usually begins to form around 5pm. Of course, this all depends on the day, the show, and the specific performance. If the entrance is not open yet, a line will begin to form outside. If the entrance is open, you will go down a short hallway where you will queue in a waiting room. Locals will be seen making themselves comfortable, seated on the floor, with something to read (I actually saw a guy with one of those little collapsible 3-legged camping stools, not a bad idea). It’s smart to pack something to eat for your waiting time as well. You can buy food once inside, but it’s not cheap. I arrived around 5:15 and there was already a good-sized line in front of me.
Once the tickets begin to be sold, the line will move quickly at first, then you’ll wait again; then you’ll move; then you’ll wait… etc. This is your first of 3 waiting periods. When you finally do get to the window, there are 3 options for tickets: Parterre (4 Euro), Balcon (3 Euro), and Galerie (3 Euro). Parterre is at the floor level, and if you are early enough, offers you the best vantage point. However, these spots can get very crowded and not everyone will have their own section of rail to lean against. Balcon is the second level, with standing room spaces to the sides of the stage. Most of these spaces will have a partially obstructed view. Galerie seats are at the top level, but offer the best acoustics and a chance for a full stage view. Also, every space at the balcon and galerie level is well-sized and you get your own section of velvet padded railing along with a personal “subtitle” digital box to read the libretto from the performance. So unless you are uber-early, my advice is to go for the galerie seats. This was the advice given to me by the “band-geeky” looking local student in line before me. He spent his waiting time reading the bios of famous opera stars and even had some of the autographs within his book. I think this guy knew his stuff.
Which leads me to my next point: find someone who looks like they know what they’re doing (they will be dressed nicer than most tourists) and do as they do. Often the tourist herds blindly follow the pack, sometimes leading to less than optimal results.
IMPORTANT: You can only get 1 ticket per person. This means that everyone who wants to see the performance MUST wait in line. You CANNOT just take a volunteer from your group to wait in line and purchase tickets for everyone.
Once you receive your ticket, you will need to go to different sections of the theater depending on which section you have purchased. Again, find someone near you in line with the same type of ticket, and follow close behind. For my galerie seats, I went from the ticket window to the right down a hallway, then up a set of stairs. Then I found myself in the main entrance to the theater. At the bottom of the stairs there will be ushers taking tickets and directing you towards the right staircase. Once you give them your ticket, you’ll go up another set of stairs where you will enter your 2nd waiting period.
At this point, the organized queue is gone. There will be a jumbled mass of people waiting on a wide staircase. Here, if you can nonchalantly slide up past a few people without being rude, go for it. This will put you in a better position for an optimal standing space once the line begins to move again. About 45 minutes before the performance begins, the lines will begin to move again. This part is important, it’s at this time that your chance at an ideal spot is had or missed.
People will begin to move, some moving very quickly. Again, stick with the locals who look like they know what they are doing. Some will be a half-stride short of an all-out run, but in a restrained “I need to keep good manners at the opera” kind of way. Unless you are at the very front of the stairway line, don’t file into the center doors with the masses. Instead, choose one of the entrance just to the right or left sides. Now quickly scan the scene and do your best to find a spot that best-negotiates the combination of first standing row and most towards the center. The more towards the right and left you get, the more obstructed your view will be. The further back you get, the less room you will have and the less optimal your viewing path will be. So move it as quickly as possible to a prime space. Each space at the galerie and balcon level will be marked with its own personal digital text reader.
Once you have found your space, you will need to mark it (remember, you still have about 45 minutes until the show begins). Locals will mark their spot by wrapping a scarf around the railing. You’ll see how it works, and I recommend you do the same thing. If you don’t have a scarf, a bandana or anything else to wrap around the railing will work. Once you have your space properly reserved, now you can relax. This is your final waiting period. You probably still have all your stuff with you (a jacket, maybe a bag of some kind). Now you can go and check these things. Also, if you’d like, you can rent binoculars for a fee of 2 Euro (recommended if you are at the uppermost level).
Don’t worry about your space, your scarf marking your territory will be widely respected and no one will remove it or steal it. Use this time to walk around and see parts of the opera house as it is a remarkably beautiful building. Part of the building goes back to the 1800s, and part of the building was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt during the 1950s.
So in summary, some quick tips:
- Arrive between 2.5-2 hours before curtain
- Be prepared to wait, then be prepared to move it
- Pack a dinner and something to read
- Find a local who knows his stuff and follow suit
- Do your best to dress-up; casual clothing is accepted, but certainly not sportswear or shorts/sandals
- Unless you are super early, go for galerie seats. If you’re one of the first, go for parterre
- Don’t worry about checking your stuff until AFTER you’ve reserved your space
- The standing room area can get warm during the performance, be prepared to shed layers if possible
- Julius Meinl is a great cafe nearby. Please resist the Starbucks across the street from the opera house; you’re in Vienna.
That’s it. If you ever get to visit Vienna, I think a performance at the opera is a must. Enjoy the show. I’m not a huge opera person, but my night at the operain Vienna proved to be the perfect conclusion to my visit.
Below is a piece from Pagliacci, with the title role performed by Pavaratti. Jose Cura played this role at the performance I saw, and he was phenomenal.